What now for Americans and climate change?

What now for Americans and climate change?

The new administration poses grave challenges, but don’t give up the fight just yet.

Shelby Meyerhoff
Photo of the Unitarian Universalist and larger faith contingent of the Sept 21, 2014 Peoples Climate March in New York City.

Unitarian Universalists join the faith contingent for the Peoples Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014. (© Peter Bowden CC BY-ND 2.0)

© Peter Bowden (CC BY-ND 2.0)


Shortly after the U.S. presidential election, I left Boston for the United Nations climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, where I would be joining the Unitarian Universalist Association delegation as an observer. Given Donald Trump’s denial of climate change and his support for fossil fuels, the situation felt bleak.

The Marrakech talks were intended to build on the progress made during the 2015 climate talks in Paris. Under the Paris Agreement, countries committed to sufficiently limiting global average temperature rise to avert some of the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. The United States pledged to dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. The Paris Agreement also upheld the moral responsibility of developed countries to support emissions reduction and adaptation efforts by developing countries. Trump campaigned on ending U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement.

I have always been an activist but not an optimist. Before I arrived in Marrakech, I found it hard to see how Trump could be stopped. In fact, it seemed entirely possible his election would undo international progress before he even took office, by weakening the resolve of other powerful countries. Perhaps they too would start backing away from their Paris promises.

When we work in our own cities, states, and regions, we are an integral part of the international climate movement.

Instead, the international community rallied during the Marrakech talks. The United Kingdom ratified the Paris Agreement, joining 110 countries that had already done so. China’s vice foreign minister publicly criticized Trump’s infamous comment about climate change being a hoax invented by the Chinese. And nearly 200 nations issued the Marrakech Action Proclamation, declaring the “extraordinary momentum on climate change worldwide” to be “irreversible.”

In Marrakech, fellow members of the UUA delegation and I met people from around the world, including faith leaders, indigenous people, women leaders, youth, government representatives, United Nations officials, and others. We participated in meaningful conversations, rituals, and public witness events. Being together with so many people who cared so deeply about this issue opened a small place in my heart for hope.

Whether from indigenous communities fighting fossil fuel extraction or industrialized cities working to reduce emissions, people around the world share the same goal of a viable future for humanity. There are still challenges and disagreements facing the international community in climate change negotiations, but the overarching consensus to cut greenhouse gas emissions and support adaptation remains intact.

U.S. emissions reduction is essential to meeting the international goal of keeping this planet livable. Other powerful countries are willing to step up and pressure our government to fulfill its commitments. At the same time, we as Americans living under Trump’s administration have to build greater momentum for climate justice within our country.

What can we do now?

The resounding message from Marrakech was that people can make a significant impact through “subnational action,” meaning efforts at the local, state, or regional levels. This strategy is relevant not only in the United States but also worldwide. Even in countries with supportive governments, the adaptation needs and emissions reductions opportunities of a big coastal city likely differ from those of a rural area, so it is crucial to have grassroots engagement to identify and implement the best solutions for each community.

At the same time, there are common strategies used by climate activists worldwide, particularly to reduce emissions: oppose fossil fuel pipelines and plants, increase the supply of renewable energy and the demand for it, and grow energy efficiency programs. And there is a common moral understanding that effective solutions come from diverse partnerships and should decrease inequality rather than exacerbate it. If we in the United States engage in successful subnational campaigns, we can contribute to reducing the total greenhouse gas emissions from our country.

Successful victories within U.S. states can also build our power to advocate at the federal level. We can tell our congressional representatives how climate action in our communities gained widespread support and provided benefits, such as clean water and air, renewable energy jobs, and financial savings on energy costs. We can demonstrate that this is an economic and public health issue in red states, as well as blue.

There are networks around the country and the world to support subnational climate action. Under the leadership of indigenous communities, people of faith and many other activists traveled to Standing Rock, showing that a local fight can draw national support. The No New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure campaign has engaged city leaders throughout the Northwest and beyond. The C40 Cities coalition includes more than eighty cities worldwide that are confronting climate change, from Houston to Johannesburg to Seoul. Women from around the world, including many from indigenous communities, have joined together through the Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network. Even some major corporations are stepping up together. During the Marrakech talks, more than 365 U.S. businesses and investors signed an open letter of support for the Paris Agreement, as part of the Low-Carbon USA initiative.

When we work in our own cities, states, and regions, we are an integral part of the international climate movement. I believe in the subnational approach because I’ve seen it firsthand. At home in New England, I’ve engaged with a variety of activists operating at different levels, from lawyers who worked across multiple states to stop the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline to people of conscience who steered their lobster boat into the path of a coal shipment bound for the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. Kinder Morgan was forced to give up on that particular pipeline, and Brayton Point is set to retire in 2017.

Still, I can tell you that these on-the-ground campaigns will only get harder. They will take our time, our resources, and our showing up. They will force us to think and talk a lot about climate change, which can be painful.

I can also tell you that it will be rewarding to join or stay in the climate movement. Everyone—including people with diverse talents, passions, and life stories—is needed. We’ll be inspired by one another and the experience of being together, and together we’ll find new ways of linking this climate justice struggle to all the struggles for justice that await us.

Start now. Ask your friends or fellow congregants when the next meeting, training, or demonstration is happening. Go. I believe that every person reading this can give something meaningful to the climate movement.

What I cannot promise you—what I cannot bear to even promise myself—is that we’ll win. I can’t swear that our communities or the larger world will meet the challenge of reducing emissions quickly enough to maintain a livable planet. But what you and I both know is that we’re in a very narrow window of time in which the chance is not yet lost, that people around the world are not giving up, and that joining the fight offers not only a meaningful opportunity for connection and community, but also the only path left for protecting our planet and human life.